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'Ear bud' headphones can cause hearing loss, experts warn
Scripps Howard News Service


December 29, 2005
Thursday AM

All those ears ringing from newly gifted iPods and MP3 players may not be able to hear next year's Christmas bells as well if music lovers aren't careful, hearing specialists are warning.

"We're seeing the kind of hearing loss in younger people that's typically found in aging adults," said Dean Garstecki, an audiologist and professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

The big culprits aren't the devices themselves, but the tiny "ear bud" style headphones that the music players use. "Unfortunately, the earbuds are even more likely to cause hearing loss than the muff-type earphones that were used on Walkman and portable CD players," Garstecki said.



In a study published last year in the journal Ear and Hearing, researchers at Harvard Medical School looked at a variety of headphones and found that, on average, the smaller they were, the higher their output levels at any given volume-control setting.

And other studies have shown that because the tiny phones inserted into the ears are not as efficient at blocking outside sounds as the cushioned headsets, users tend to crank up the volume to compensate.

"I have an audiologist friend at Wichita State University who actually pulls off earphones of students he sees and asks, in the interest of science, if he could measure the output of the signal going into their heads," Garstecki said. Often he finds students listening at 110 to 120 decibels.

"That's a sound level equivalent to measures that are made at rock concerts," said Garstecki. "And it's enough to cause hearing loss after only about an hour and 15 minutes."

A study done by Australian researchers last summer found that about a quarter of iPod users between 18 and 54 years of age listened at volumes sufficient to cause hearing damage.

Moreover, having music players with longer-lasting batteries and more storage capacity encourages people with portable players to listen longer, not giving the ears a chance to recover.

Hearing advocates are pressing for people to turn down the volume. The rule of thumb suggested by researchers at Boston Children's Hospital is to hold the volume of a music player no higher than 60 percent of the maximum, and use it for only about an hour a day.

The National Hearing Conservation Association also recommends that parents try to find audio gear for their kids that have volume-limiting devices built-in.

"If music listeners are willing to turn the volume down further still and use different headphones, they can increase the amount of time that they can safely listen," Garstecki said.


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